Unreached Network

“We Are Not The Hero.” A Review.

Jean Johnson, We Are Not the Hero: A Missionary’s Guide For Sharing Christ, Not A Culture of Dependency. Sisters, Oregon: Deep River Books, 2012. A Review by Susie Howe.

When I was in primary school, I already had a fierce passion for justice for those who were poor or oppressed. Whenever anyone teased or bullied those who were more vulnerable in my class, I would threaten to bash in the face of the bully – which of course was totally inappropriate! I had the passion, the heart, and the right motives, but totally the wrong approach to addressing the problem!

As those who are passionate about working cross-culturally and being used by God to catalyse vibrant communities of Jesus followers in unreached contexts, we too can have the right heart and motivations, but apply disastrously wrong approaches that are more harmful than helpful, influenced as we are by cultural values, worldviews and life experiences that are completely different to those of people in our host culture.

That’s why Jean Johnson’s book, We Are Not the Hero: A Missionary’s Guide for Sharing Christ, Not a Culture of Dependency is an absolute ‘must-read’ for those considering planting churches in another culture and country or for those who have already started living and working overseas.

Filled with a treasure trove of very practical insights and teaching on missiology and how to plant churches that from the word ‘go’ are indigenous, sustainable, replicable and self-supporting, it shares how to avoid ‘White Saviourism’ whereby those from the global north seek to ‘fix’ the problems of those in the global south, or to plant churches that are clones of those from the nations from which they originate. This is a book that should ideally be read and reflected on long before you get off the plane and your boots hit the tarmac of the airport in your destination town or city.  It should then be read again once you are starting to grapple with language learning and trying to figure out how to catch a local bus or buy bread from the corner shop. And then again when you have been in the field for a couple of years or so and think you are beginning to have it ‘sorted’!

Johnson honestly and humbly shares mistakes made and lessons learned whilst working for 16 years in Cambodia, where she was involved in planting churches. She writes in a highly readable and conversational way, and extensively shares helpful quotations and teaching from the bible and from missiologists and other practitioners, as well as stories and examples from her work that are often funny and that pack a punch.

The title is not a catchy one and I felt the book could have been a bit shorter had it been better edited. However, there’s pure gold to be found within its pages. Johnson covers topics such as planning for multiplication; making disciples who make disciples; ensuring that emerging churches reflect the soul of the culture and have psychological ownership of their purpose, function and growth; mobilising local resources for sustainability and how to be low-profile ‘coaches’ who get behind local people and mentor them so that they are able to lead in all aspects of the growth of the church / faith community from the word go. The book finishes with an excellent chapter on communication strategies when working with those who are predominantly oral learners.

Having read the book, I wished that I had been able to read it 26 years ago when I first started working cross-culturally as a development worker. I’m sure that it would have helped me to avoid harmful cultural errors. A quotation cited at the beginning of the book forcibly hit me. It was from Pastor Oscar Muriu, who at the time was a church leader in Kenya. He said of those from the Global North who come to ‘solve the problems’ of those in his context,

Now, this tendency to fix [our lives] has become a real issue, so that some of the reserve that we feel as Africans or as two-third worlders is so many people come to fix us that O’ Lord, please don’t bring another person to fix us. We have been fixed so many times we are in a real mess now. Please allow us to be us. Allow us to find God and to find faith in the reality of our world.’ (P.12)

Let me finish with another quotation from the book that particularly resonates in these days:

As missionaries, it is essential to consider what type of footprint we are leaving in the various countries we set foot in…do we need to revise our strategies so as to reduce our ‘foreign emissions’ and ‘paternal footprints’ and instead stimulate indigenous movements for Christ that have the God-given authority, vision and capability to sustain and multiply these movements without dependency on mission entities?’ (P.55)

There can surely only be one response to that question – a resounding ‘Yes!